But at the last minute, with reporters lined up to enter, the meeting was closed to the media.
The abrupt change surprised the press corps, which has grown accustomed to Trump using such events to answer shouted questions on the news of the day. He has routinely gone on for more than half an hour, often straying far afield from the nominal purpose of the photo op.
Instead, the reporters were left waiting for participants to speak afterward, sans Trump, in the West Wing driveway.
“Another strange occurrence today,” Fox News correspondent John Roberts noted on Twitter. “As the White House press pool was being escorted to the Oval Office for a photo op with @realDonaldTrump and victims of communism, the @WhiteHouse suddenly closed the event and sent the pool back to the Brady Briefing Room.”
Trump critics speculated that the president was, uncharacteristically, cowed into silence. Less than an hour before the meeting, news broke that a judge in New York had ordered Trump to pay $2 million in damages for misusing funds from a tax-exempt charity. The president has also faced a steady stream of damaging revelations in the House Democrats’ impeachment probe over his dealings with Ukraine.
On Wednesday, Trump had chosen not to speak with reporters who had assembled on the South Lawn to document his departure on Marine One en route to a campaign rally in Louisiana. The president has so often answered questions over the din of the helicopter’s rotor blades that the impromptu sessions have been dubbed “chopper talk.”
The small group of dissidents that met with Trump was left in the dark over the press access.
“We didn’t have any indication it was going to be with press or no press,” said Marion Smith, executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, which organized the meeting. The group successfully lobbied in 2017 for the Trump administration to formally recognize a national day of remembrance each year. This year, the day was timed to coincide with ceremonies for the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9.
“I think there’s always a sensitivity to a meeting like this,” Smith said. “I’ve got to say, there was a level of back-and-forth [with Trump] that was more personal and more intimate than would have been possible with a press spray.”
After the meeting, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told reporters that the meeting was “far too personal to have the press involved.”
Trump allowed reporters into a meeting with North Korean defectors in 2018; some of the defectors chose to stay out of the Oval Office over fears that publicly identifying themselves could jeopardize their safety. And Trump met with victims of religious persecution in July, after which video clips of him asking insensitive questions went viral.
The four dissidents who met with Trump on Thursday are all relatively prominent human rights activists accustomed to telling their stories in public: Grace Jo, a North Korea defector; Daniel Di Martino, a U.S. spokesman for Vente Venezuela, a third-party political group; Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, a blogger released from prison in Vietnam in 2018; and Sirley Avila Leon, a human rights activist from Cuba.
Jo spoke about her own story of fleeing North Korea for China in 2006 at the George W. Bush Institute and at an international forum in Oslo. Di Martino’s biography says he has been interviewed by Fox News, including the Glenn Beck Show, and he has written for numerous publications.
In interviews Thursday, Jo and Di Martino said Trump appeared genuinely interested in their stories, asking them questions about their native countries and taking photos with the group. The president sat behind the Resolute desk, with the dissidents in chairs in front of him.
In 2018, Jo criticized Trump in an interview at the Bush Insitute for not bringing up human rights in his nuclear summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
On Thursday, she said, Trump “asked a question about whether North Korea is getting better or not. I said it was getting worse.” She did not offer a more detailed response, she said, because time was limited.
“He said he knows a lot about North Korea,” Jo said. “He said he understands the inhumane activities in North Korea and the human rights issues.”
Leon, of Cuba, told Trump the Obama administration’s diplomatic opening with Havana had been a mistake, Di Martino said, and the two of them expressed concern that Cuba was helping keep Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in power.
Di Martino said a White House aide told the group that the press would not be permitted into the room because “the president wanted us to be comfortable.”
The White House issued a three-paragraph presidential proclamation after the meeting was over.
Trump later tweeted a written statement denouncing the legal ruling on his charitable foundation.